The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

SEIU organizes janitors in Houston
– toward what end?

Nov 27, 2006

Janitors in Houston just completed a month-long strike against the five largest cleaning companies in the area. The contract they agreed to gives them a wage increase from the current wage of $5.15 an hour to $7.75; the ability to work six hours a night, up from four now; health insurance for themselves and their families; and paid holidays and vacation time. All of these will go into effect on January 1, 2009.

These janitors and their strike were organized by the SEIU. Despite what has been said about the SEIU as a model for future organizing, it is far from that. Across the country, the union has called on workers to strike simply as a bargaining tool, to be used as leverage by the negotiators at the top; it does NOT call on workers to organize and control their own strike. In this way, it is not very different from other unions today; and that’s a problem.

In addition, the SEIU has, throughout the country, been collapsing union locals into mega-locals, some of which cover hundreds of thousands of workers across several states into one local. The SEIU leadership claims this is necessary, in order to organize in today’s economy. This is absolutely not true, if the goal is for workers to control their own union structures and their own fights.

Of course, if all union leadership wants is to have organizations and strikes dependent on paid staff members, this is what it would do. Although the “local” leaderships are technically elected by the membership, the workers never actually have any contact with them. The union officials who head smaller units, on a truly local level, are not elected, but are appointed staff representatives. These staff members are often hired from outside the union, and are often not workers at all, but former students; they know nothing of the daily life of working people.

The companies, on the other hand, gain a union ready to be “responsible” to their desire to make profits. It’s much better for the companies to have a fight led in an “orderly” way, controlled by the “generals” at the top, in which the workers are nothing but foot soldiers. Very good for the companies – and very much a barrier for the workers.

If the workers had organized this strike themselves, if they had known everything involved, would they accept the deal they received? We have no way to know; but what we can say is that the wage increase granted by the contract is what has already come about in a number of states, and probably soon on a federal level. Commentators expect the new Congress to pass a minimum wage increase to the same level.

In addition, the workers won’t get what they won until two years from now.

Ercilia Sandoval, one of the strikers and a member of the bargaining committee, has been diagnosed with breast and lung cancer; she was unhappy with the lag in the health insurance in the contract. She called it a “very urgent issue that I wanted in this first year. I don't want anyone else to go through what I have gone through. . . . We'll fight for free insurance for the entire family in the next contract. I won't rest until I see that.”

If Sandoval reflects the sentiment of other janitors in Houston, it’s a plus – because that determination is what will win more in the future and make the union more representative of the workers’ interests.